Each year, about one in 14 doctors gets sued for malpractice, but only one claim in five results in a settlement or other payout, according to the most comprehensive study of these claims in 20 years.

While the findings might suggest that most of these claims are meritless, authors of the study in the New England Journal of Medicine said that only a small minority of patients harmed by medical errors take their grievances to court because of the cost and complexity of litigation.

As The Associated Press reports, most physicians and nearly all surgeons will face a malpractice claim at least once during their careers.

But trial lawyers typically work on a contingent-fee basis, meaning they advance the costs of litigation and only collect if they win. Case preparation and expert witnesses are expensive, and plaintiffs are often financially outgunned by doctors, hospitals and their insurers. Malpractice award are capped in some states.

As a result, attorneys tend to pursue only airtight cases that are expected to reap a high cash award.

“A lawyer would have to be an idiot to take a frivolous case to court,” said study co-author Amitabh Chandra, an economist and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government

The researchers analyzed data for about 41,000 physicians who bought coverage from one of the nation’s largest malpractice insurers from 1991-2005. They agreed not to identify the insurer, which covers about 3 percent of the nation’s doctors.

The study also found that some medical specialists were targeted more than others, led by neurosurgeons and heart surgeons, 19 percent of whom were sued every year.  Pediatricians and psychiatrists were sued the least, with only about 3 percent facing a claim each year. But when pediatricians did pay a claim, it was higher than the others, averaging $520,000 versus an average of about $275,000 for other specialties.  

“Jurors’ hearts cry out for injured patients, especially when kids are involved,” Chandra told The Associated Press.

The study was funded by the RAND Institute for Civil Justice, along with the National Institute on Aging, which has been interested in malpractice as a possible driver of health-care costs.

A study published in 2010 found that about one in four cardiologists said they order tests to avoid being sued. Births by cesarean section have reached an all-time high in the U.S., driven in part by legal fears of doctors, according to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

A poll of obstetricians, cited by The New York Times, found that nearly 30 percent of respondents were performing more Cesareans because they feared lawsuits.

According to Chandra, that fear stems largely from the emotional toll such claims take on doctors.

“They hate having their name dragged through the local newspaper and having to go to court,” he said.

CHRISTINE YOUNG

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